Shooting an Elephant Questions and Answers
by George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant book cover
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Discuss the circumstances that led Orwell to shoot the elephant in Shooting an Elephant.

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The young police officer who is based on Orwell and his own experiences in Myanmar is compelled to act by a number of factors, all of which are completely out of his control.  When called to the scene, he realizes that he can choose not to shoot the elephant as the animal is at rest and not currently a threat to anyone.  He could wait for the elephant's owner to return, but the pressure of the crowd to do something is intense.  Some want a spectacle; others want a piece of the animal for feed their families.  Many in the crowd see this incident as a test of the police officer and of their ability to control him.  The officer, being British and a representative of the British Empire, has the power and authority, but it becomes clear to him and the crowd that he is subject to their power in their sheer number.  If the officer shoots the elephant, the crowd will be satisfied, and the officer will maintain his position. If he does not shoot he will be seen as weak and impotent.  As such he becomes a symbol for the entire rot and decay of the empire, a force capable of intimidating those under its reign but in no way in real control.  The great justification for shooting the elephant is that it has killed a man, but even that is false justification.  The officer has no respect for the dead person, nor we find out do his colleagues who discuss the incident later at the station.  The British saw the dead citien as far less important than the elephant.  To save the empire the officer has only one choice: kill the elephant and calm the crowd.  The killing does not come easy, however.  He pours shot after shot into the elephant yet the animal refuses to die for a long time.  The elephant becomes a symbol for the entire empire.  To save the empire its adherents must take actions that ultimately destroy the empire.  What an interesting conundrum.

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